Hiding in plain sight – camouflage

Having trouble finding that Tomato Hornworm on your tomato plant? Look as you might and all you see are the remains of chewed leaves – until it appears, as if by magic. That is exactly what these critters hope for – not to be seen by you or the predators that would love a juicy meal. Camouflage is a tactic used by many kinds of animals to blend into their environment in hopes of not being seen. Thus, they’re hiding in plain sight.

Not becoming a meal is certainly one reason to use camouflage, but there is a second reason as well. For many predators, blending into the background allows them to let prey come close enough to snatch, like Praying Mantids that are hard to spot among the leaves. Color, texture, modified shapes of appendages, and extra appendages constitute the ways and means of blending in. For some animals, the patterns are static, like the hornworm. For others, change can occur over short periods of time or between seasons of the year.

Chameleons and octopus are well-known examples of animals that can use pigments embedded in their skin to change colors instantaneously. Some octopi can deform their skins to create elaborate textures that help them blend in. For insects, a change in color comes only after molting. Praying Mantids can change in this way to shades of brown when found in darker foliage.

On the other hand, Green Anoles can change their color from green to brown within a minute or so. Not so with the Fence Lizards that always sport their mottled gray-brown pattern that allows them to blend in perfectly on the trunk of a pine tree. For both species, camouflage helps them sneak up on prey and avoid predators.

Many birds also use camouflage to blend in. The females of many species of birds have muted color patterns that allow them to blend in when on their nest. The more colorful males use their colors to impress the ladies and rivals, but that makes them easier to spot, by the hawk that is camouflaged in the nearby trees. Other species have dramatic cryptic patterns that let them disappear on a tree or among the leaves of the forest floor. American Woodcock is a great example.

Many mammals also use camouflage. The spotted patterns of deer fawns let them blend into the dappled light of the forest floor. Arctic Foxes molt twice a year, changing from their brown summer coat to their white coats in winter. But insects as a group are by far the champions when it comes to ways to blend in.

National Geographic is a great place to learn more about camouflage.

Have fun finding the critters in your world that would rather not be seen.

Hope to see you in our great outdoors!

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Written by Mark W. LaSalle, Ph.D.

Mark is a naturalist and wetland ecologist, providing expertise on wetlands, water quality and environmental impacts of humans. He has also developed and conducted a number of environmental education programs and workshops for youth, teachers, realtors, and the general public on a variety of subjects including wetlands, natural history, and environmental landscaping. Mark is a graduate of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (B.S. and M.S. degrees) and Mississippi State University (Ph.D.). Mark is the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator Award, the Gulf Guardian Award, and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.

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